The kindest cutscene

Sometimes, the answer to a single question tells you everything you need to know about where a person stands on a topic.

The Los Angeles Lakers: Do you like Kobe Bryant?  

Coldplay: Do bombastic Chris Martin solos turn your musical crank?

Metal Gear Solid: Dude. How do you feel about cutscenes?

Anyone who’s spent any time bouncing around the stealth-tech universe Hideo Kojima has been spinning out of the dark recesses of his inner id for the last 10 years knows the man has an unflappable affinity for cutscenes, those extended CGI movies that interrupt the parts of the game where you’re actually, you know, controlling the action.

The latest and final opus, the weightily titled Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, is, as you’d expect, all but bursting with them. They’re not as long as anyone feared, but they do run the weirdness gamut, from the dusty Middle Eastern firefight that kicks off the action — watch cutscene, move Snake underneath a truck, trigger next cutscene — to some truly bizarre entries later on down the line. (Two words: boss battles.)

You can be annoyed, if you like, at the ways in which Kojima breaks the action to break out a 20-minute soapbox on war and its natural, evolutionary consequences. But if you’re being honest, you also have to appreciate his artistry. And also the subtle ways he lets gamers interact with the animated vision, from pumping the X button every now and then to trigger a Snake flashback, to shaking the Sixaxis to trigger, um, something else involving Meryl Silverburgh.

Once upon a time, cutscenes were seen as a reward for beating a level, a chance to catch your breath after a huge boss battle and figure out in which direction the story was heading. Or, if you point your Wayback Machine to the golden age of video-gaming, a very basic but entertaining diversion. A one-armed zombie refugee from Resident Evil 5 could get to that first chase scene in Ms. Pac-Man, but could you get to the one that showed Baby Pac?

These days, the camps are infinitely more polarized. An ever-growing set of gamers deeply resents this particular aspect of the way movies and games have conflated, like a beautiful new Jacuzzi that’s been tainted by a game developer who’s filled it with $140-a-barrel crude. Games are about immersion, they argue, and cutscenes yank you out of that experience like a bodyguard yanks you away from Charlize Theron. Even respected luminaries like David “God of War” Jaffe turn up their noses at cutscenes … although, frankly, we’re still waiting for that cutscene-free game you promised us a couple years back, David.

Companies actually became known by the ways in which they handled (or bungled) the issue. Take Square Enix: For years, it was a running joke that the ridiculously polished cutscenes in just about any Final Fantasy game were about a hundred times better than the actual game itself — especially in the horrific Dirge of Cereberus, where the cutscenes weren’t just graphically better than the regular action but showed Vincent Valentine doing things you couldn’t do when the analog sticks were yours to command. (Brilliant!) The guys at Valve, meanwhile, won a ton of fanboy love by creating cutscenes that kept the control in your hands, so Gordon Freeman could walk around and poke in lockers while Alyx blathered about the Black Mesa monstrosity that just tried to bite his face off.

With every major release, from Bioshock (which also integrated cutscenes expertly) to the forthcoming Killzone 2 (which probably won’t), everyone’s anxiously awaiting the arrival of the first truly complete immersive game — basically, the realization of the holodeck promises held out by Star Trek and so much sci-fi.

News flash: That day isn’t here yet, and it’s probably not going to arrive anytime before Spider-Man 8 hits multiplexes. Since that’s the case, doesn’t it make more sense to enjoy the artistry of the moment, rather than constantly blasting the medium for failing to evolve at Mach 10? To me, this feels like slamming The Dark Knight because it doesn’t include thought balloons hovering over Heath Ledger’s head.

Besides, there’s plenty to appreciate if you’re willing to set aside the high-mindedness and remember that while games are about immersion, they’re also about entertainment, and one isn’t necessarily more important than the other. It’s hard not to love, for instance, the way the guys at Travelers Tales work humor into the cutscenes of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones Lego games without so much as the benefit of sound. Or the way that God of War 2 weaves those button-pushes.

So the next time Otacon breaks into the action to regale Snake with 10 more minutes of backstory, hold off on the groans until the cutscene’s done. You never know — you might even find yourself (gasp!) entertained.

UP>> A PITHY GUIDE TO RIDING THE WEB This great little blog highlights some of the most interesting articles about urban art, architecture, and other urban-culture obscurities. Check out a recent post on 10 amazing sand artists — their work ranges from a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà to massive Norse sea gods, many of which are washed away by the tide within hours of completion.


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